Billionaire entrepreneur and innovator Elon Musk may have just opened a new chapter in the history of the internet — albeit unintentionally. His new Twitter policies and the digital refugees he created, most fleeing to the heretofore obscure Twitter-like platform Mastodon, could give birth to a very new type of social media experience.
Upon buying Twitter, Musk, a self-described free speech absolutist, reinstated accounts belonging to former President Donald Trump, the right-wing satire site Babylon Bee and the occasionally crude left-wing comedian Kathy Griffin. This was coupled with removing verification requirements (that have since been updated) while adding a monthly fee, as well as mass layoff at the company.
More recently, Twitter has suspended several journalists who reported on information about Musk’s jet.
Disgruntled with the changes and controversy, some users stampeded to other services, such as the far smaller European Twitter alternative Mastodon, the brainchild of free-speech advocate and German software engineer Eugen Rochko. But can Mastodon compete with Twitter’s reach? Although Mastodon’s 1 million users pale in comparison to Twitter’s 238 million users, Mastodon’s secret weapon is that it’s more than a mere site. It is a federation of sites that can maintain their autonomy while exchanging information with each other. Mastodon uses an open and free social media protocol, ActivityPub, which allows any social medium to connect to any other, as long as they are open and transparent with each other. Several platforms, such as the YouTube-like PeerTube, Instagram alternative Pixelfed, social networking Friendica already do it. The shift from Twitter to Mastodon and ActivityPub could be an epoch-making digital revolution, comparable with the invention of the web itself. ActivityPub may restore the web and its most sophisticated layer, social media, to the open and universally connectable vision of the internet itself. Our most popular social media platforms — Facebook, Twitter and TikTok — remain walled gardens, only allowing users to exchange information within apps under the same ownership or create apps within each platform. This drawback does not apply to ActivityPub-empowered sites. Far from walled gardens, they are fields connected by open roads.
What is ActivityPub and how does it work? At the simplest level, it is a method (protocol) for social media servers to talk to each other even if they are owned by different entities and dedicated to different purposes. Imagine that CBS News, BBC, National Review and Fox News create their own social media servers using the Mastodon user interface and ActivityPub as a server-to-server protocol. All that the owners of these sites must do to connect to each other is to list the server addresses of each other on a list of “federated sites.”
Immediately, the users of the sites that talk to each other will be able to follow other users’ reposts or comments across server boundaries. This has several advantages. The first and most important thing is that social media owners have a direct and immediate relationship with their users. The owners do not need to be corporate, by the way. Independent media organizations, nonprofits or user co-ops can create their own media servers. They can develop their content policies, privacy protection methods and financial support methods, from advertising (which they control) to subscription or donation-based support. Social media owners can also decide when and how to open access to other federation members. This may include trial periods or suspension of communication.
Finally, any company or nonprofit organization can use a social media interface of their own, not Mastodon, and still be able to talk to other sites using ActivityPub. The interface can include new tools, such as a Trust button to replace the like or favorite buttons. My colleagues and I created the TrustFirst social media server powered by ActivityPub and Mastodon. On it, machine learning analyzes the content you are about to reshare or like and advises you whether the content is trustworthy. A new button invites you to trust or not and the trust value is used in disseminating the content more or less.
More intriguingly, Musk could also implement ActivityPub on Twitter, as Tumblr did. He would ensure the site’s long-term reach while Twitter users will have the cake (be on Twitter) and eat it too (not be beholden to its rules).
The genius of the internet is that it allows and should allow independently owned and managed sites to talk to each other. This is reflected in the very name of the internet, which is a network of networks (inter-net), not one integrated network. The closed social media detour in the history of communication might just come to a very interesting swerve. Watch out for tight turns!
Sorin Matei, Ph.D., is the College of Liberal Arts associate dean of research and graduate education and a professor of communication at Purdue University, where he studies the relationship between information technology, group behavior and social structures in a variety of contexts. He is a senior research fellow at the Krach Institute for Tech Diplomacy at Purdue.